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Help and Advice - How to Handle People with Panic Disorders

written by: N Nayab • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 10/15/2010

About 60 million or 20 percent of all American adults encounter panic attacks at some point in their lives, and about 3 million or 1.7 percent of all adult Americans suffer from full-blown panic disorder. Learning how to handle people with panic disorders might put you in a position to help someone.

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    Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder where the patient encounters unexpected and repeated episodes of panic attacks. A panic attack results in sudden and unprovoked fear (intensly felt) or extreme anxiety accompanied with symptoms such as nausea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, headaches, backaches, trembling, dizziness, tingling in fingers or toes, sweating, dry mouth, abdominal distress, and hot flashes or chills that last anywhere between five and twenty minutes.

    Agoraphobia is a type of panic disorder where people experience panic attacks in some situations or conditions, such as when driving, when in an elevator, or when shopping in a crowded store. It entails developing irrational fears or phobias, and being in the same situation or condition trigger panic attacks.

    The specific causes for panic disorders are uncertain and attributable to a combination of biological vulnerabilities, ways of thinking, and stress.

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    How to Handle People Undergoing Panic Attacks

    How to Handle People with Panic Disorders Panic attacks occur when the mind cannot distinguish between real and imaginary danger, and starts to react to imaginary dangers as it does on encountering real danger. Dealing with anxiety and panic attacks is difficult for the person as the body arouses to a peak level of excitement and the person loose control.

    Options to help people encountering panic attacks include

    • Talk to the person in a firm and reassuring manner to find out whether it is a panic attack or heart attack, as both have common symptoms. Do not, however; put pressure or cause stress by asking “how it happened.” If panic attack, ask the person if he or she has ready medication or technique to calm down. If it's a heart attack, seek immediate medical attention. If in doubt, or if attack lasts longer than 15 minutes seek medical attention anyway
    • Remove the cause of fear or move the person away from the source of distress
    • Try to reassure the person and calm them down, but do not use phrases such as "there's nothing to worry about" or "it's all in your mind" or "you're overreacting" and the like. Minimizing or dismissing the panic, which in their perspective is real, makes the attack worse. The best approach is to say “Its OK and try to induce taking deep breaths
    • Ask the person to remain still, but do not grab, hold, or restrain them
    • Panic attacks cause hot flashes or sensations of warmth. Place a wet towel around the neck and face to keep them cool and reduce the severity of the attack
    • Breathing difficulty very often accompany panic attacks. Never leave someone who is struggling to breathe, but asking them to “breathe” can aggravate the situation. A good way is by breathing into a paper bag. Breathing into a paper bag, however; causes the re-breathing of carbon dioxide, which can result in respiratory acidosis, and as such, this method requires close supervision. Using an inhaler for breathlessness triggers heart action and worsens the panic attack

    A person with a panic attack may be unfriendly or rude to those trying to help them, but this is owing to their condition.

    Image Credit: flickr.com/Wouter Kiel

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    How to Help People Suffering from Panic Disorders

    Although panic disorders are not life threatening, full-blown panic disorders with repeated panic attacks can wreck a person’s life and disable him or her. Agoraphobia, for instance, may cause people to lead a very restrictive lifestyle such as avoiding certain jobs, apartments, or shopping malls. Panic attacks in children may result in the child avoiding school, falling to substance abuse, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

    How to handle people with panic disorders? The best way to help people with panic disorders is by supporting them and not perpetuating the symptoms. Ways to do so include:

    • Accompanying people with panic disorders when required, as most of them can face a feared situation only when accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person
    • Helping them avoid alcohol, caffeine, illicit drugs, and some over-the-counter cold medications as such substances aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders
    • Preventing them from falling into dehydration, which trigger panic attacks
    • Offering mints or strong chewing gum to help them takes the mind of the panic

    A combination of medication, cognitive psychotherapy that helps change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety, and stress management exercises usually cures panic disorders. Employers would do well to institute such initiatives through employee wellness programs.

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    Disclaimer

    This article is for informative purpose only. It is not intended to treat and does not constitute medical advise.

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    1. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic Disorder. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/panic-disorder.shtml on 08 October 2010.
    2. MedicineNet.com. Panic Attacks. Retrieved from http://www.medicinenet.com/panic_disorder/page2.htm on 08 October 2010
    3. HowtoHandleanicAttacks.net. How to handle Panic Attacks. Retrieved from http://howtohandlepanicattacks.net/ on 08 October 2010.